As much as I hate to draw attention to stories that portray people with disabilities as sources of inspiration, I’m linking to this story about Paul Smith. For decades, he used a select ten characters from a typewriter to create intricate works of art. I love the bold and yet sketchy lines he makes. Very cool!
Yes, it is relevant to Smith’s art that he had cerebral palsy. His inability to use a more traditional instrument such as a brush or pencil prompted him to employ the typewriter. However, there’s absolutely no need to describe Smith as "suffering from" a "terrible condition" and therefore "remarkable" and "awe-inspiring" because he created art. There’s no indication that Smith perceived himself as suffering, burdened or even awe-inspiring. In a video about his work, he says, "It’s something to do." As far as I can tell, he was enjoying himself as he listened to classical music and meticulously created his masterpieces character by character. I’m not claiming that Smith had a purely joyous existence — for example, he didn’t attend mainstream school, which leads me to speculate that he might have felt painfully lonely in his youth — but I’m not seeing the horrible suffering that this stinky article assumes he felt.
I desperately loathe the trope of disabled person as inspiration to non-disabled people. The OddityCentral article epitomizes the dehumanization implicit in this theme when it concludes, "He died on June 24, 2007, at the Rose Haven Nursing Center in Roseburg, Oregon, but left behind an impressive portfolio of typewriter art, and most importantly the inspiration that you can overcome anything in life, if you put your mind to it." This sentence dismisses the entire content, texture and detail of Smith’s life by depicting him solely as an oppressed person who miraculously overcame his oppression to make art. It assumes that Smith’s disability can be separated from his experience and art, that it’s a barrier between him and a fulfilling life — because there’s obviously no way a person with a disability could ever have a fulfilling, happy life while also having a disability. In short, this sentence dehumanizes Smith by assuming that an inextricable part of his life, his cerebral palsy, can be excised like an early stage of cancer.
But the article isn’t satisfied with chopping up Smith into neat little segments [Person vs. Disability] and comparing him to some non-disabled person’s ridiculous standard of a fulfilling life. No, the conclusion dehumanizes him a second time as well when it dismisses his artistic accomplishments and legacy, claiming that Smith’s status as "inspiration" is more important. Yes, who cares about Smith’s life and art and disability and the relationships among these elements of his experience? Smith was not a significant person who deserved dignity and respect like all other beings. No! He was a superhuman exception to humanity whose primary purpose in this world was to educate the lowly non-disabled people about how we, too, can distance ourselves from the revolting materiality of our weak and mortal flesh and transform ourselves into pure creative mind, ascending to a plane where physical pains and distinctions are irrelevant.
I also hate the Supercrip narrative because of its creaky old Cartesian dualist underpinnings that smack strongly of racism and sexism. Relatedly, Eddie Ndopu discusses just such misogyny and racism inherent in portrayals of Reeva Steenkamp’s killer, athlete and miserable human being Oscar Pistorius. [My other discussions of sexism, ableism and racism at work in Steenkamp’s murder and the portrayal thereof can be found at "Reeva Steenkamp, 29, is dead" and "Reeva Steenkamp still dead; ex still to blame, but declared innocent of murder by courts."]